What we know about breast cancer in men

  • 19 May 2022

Most often found in women, breast cancer is affecting men too as scientists discover new facts about the disease.

A laboratory staff works at Genethon, a non-profit gene therapy R&D organization in Evry on May 10, 2022. ( AFP )

Breast cancer among men is a subject that comes with a lot of misconceptions. An understudied subject when it comes to examining the impact of the disease among male populations, breast cancer is largely attributed to female gender.

But this devastating disease affects men too. Here's what we know about that factor so far. 

Infertility is “significantly” associated with it

A new study has revealed that infertile men may be twice as likely to develop breast cancer than those without the medical issue. 

Scientists in one of the world’s leading cancer research institutions, The Institute of Cancer Research, London, conducted one of the most extensive studies on male breast cancer patients. Interviewing 1,998 breast cancer patients in 12 years, the scientists compared their fertility data with over 1500 men who didn’t suffer from the disease.

The findings were pathbreaking. The scientists say risk of breast cancer was statistically significantly associated with male-origin infertility, while significantly more men with no children were among those who had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

“Many people don’t realise that men can get breast cancer, because incidence is much lower in men than women. However, every year in the UK around 370 men are diagnosed with breast cancer, and around 80 men die from it and it’s vital that we support anyone affected by breast cancer,” Dr Simon Vincent, the director of research, said.

 “Discovering a link between infertility and male breast cancer is a step towards us understanding male breast cancer and how we could find more ways to diagnose and treat men – and possibly women – with this devastating disease.”

Men have breast tissue too

Breast cancer is a disease that is most commonly found in women, but the disease is, albeit rare, also affects men. Both men and women are born with breast tissue. While women begin developing more breast tissue in their teenage years, men typically don’t. But the small amount of breast tissue men have is still enough to cause cancer.

Abnormally high estrogen levels in men, causing excess growth of breast tissue, are linked to an increased risk of breast cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society, more than 2,700 men are diagnosed with breast cancer each year and approximately 530 men die from the disease.

In the UK, where the research is conducted, around 370 men are diagnosed with breast cancer, and around 80 men die from it each year.

It’s still a mystery 

Scientists have a few theories on what why some men may be prone to breast cancer. Men with diseases causing the incomplete breakdown of estrogen, testicular diseases, and particularly in Black men who have gallstones might be among the group of men vulnerable to the disease.

But neither of the two factors trigger the condition in men, and what is behind the association between infertility and the disease is still unclear.

“There is a need to investigate the fundamental role of male fertility hormones on the risk of breast cancer in men. We hope this could lead to insights into the underlying causes of male, and possibly even female, breast cancer,” Dr Micheal Jones, a Senior Staff Scientist at the institute said.

The scientist who participated in the research says discovering a link between infertility and male breast cancer is a step toward understanding male breast cancer and finding more ways to diagnose and treat men – and possibly women – with the disease.